Tales of the Founding of the National Cartoonists Society Part III

Posted by on June 8th, 2010 at 11:59 PM

ONCE AGAIN IN THE FALL of 1949, NCS was cooperating with the Treasury Department in a drive to sell savings bonds. But this time, the Society had volunteered to send its members out on the road. It was an ambitious undertaking: a nationwide tour stopping for three or four days in each of 17 major cities. The road show itself consisted of teams of 10 or 12 cartoonists each and a traveling display, “20,000 Years of Comics,” a 95-foot-long pictorial history that traced the development of the comic strip from cave-wall scrawls to the present. In each city, a resident member of the Society worked with a sponsoring newspaper to arrange exhibit space for the display and a schedule of performances for the cartoonists. They gave chalktalks and touted bonds before civic groups, clubs of all descriptions, schools — anywhere they could find an audience.

For each of the roadshow teams of cartoonists, the tour lasted two-three weeks. A few of the cartoonists had worked ahead of their deadlines enough to relax between shows, but most of them worked in their hotel rooms into the wee hours at night, finishing weekly batches of strips. Caniff even wrote dialogue and penciled strips while on the plane between stops. It was a grueling schedule, a hectic time. And Caniff, as NCS President, appeared with more than one of the touring teams. Moreover, he worried about the itineraries in each city and kept in contact with the local chairmen throughout the two months that NCS teams were on the road. When it was over, he was exhausted. And then another troubling matter reared its head.

In the midst of the bond tour, Caniff had received a letter from Hilda Terry, wife of the Society’s secretary, Greg d’Alessio, and created of Teena, a comic strip about teenagers. Terry was writing as spokesperson for several women cartoonists, who had had about all they could take of the male exclusivity upon which the Cartoonists Society had been so defiantly founded. A social club for the boys had been all right, she pointed out, but the more visible the club became as a professional association, the more damaging it was for women cartoonists to be excluded from membership. Terry presented the argument concisely, and its logic was unassailable: “… your organization displays itself publicly as the National Cartoonists Society, and since there is no information in the title to denote that it is exclusively a men’s organization, and since a professional organization that excludes women in this day and age is unheard of and unthought of, the public is therefore left to assume, where they are interested in any cartoonist of the female sex, that said cartoonist must be excluded from your exhibitions for other reasons damaging to the cartoonist’s professional prestige, we therefore most humbly request that you either — alter your title to the National Men Cartoonists Society, or confine your activities to social and private functions, or discontinue, in effect, whatever rule or practice you have which bars otherwise qualified women cartoonists to membership for purely sexual reasons.”

Caniff read the letter to the Oct. 26 meeting of the Society. The gender restriction wasn’t simply a question of custom: the Society’s constitution laid down the rules of eligibility for membership, specifying that “any cartoonist (male) who signs his name to his published work” could apply for membership.

The November Newsletter printed Terry’s letter and a coupon for members to return, expressing their opinions on the question of women in the ranks. Women were overwhelmingly approved for membership. A vote conducted at the same meeting validated the opinion poll. And Hilda Terry was promptly put up for membership, the first woman candidate. Later, Mike Angelo in Philadelphia read the report of the meeting in the December Newsletter, he did his duty as a member and went out recruiting. He asked the well-known magazine gag cartoonist Barbara Shermund if she’d be interested in joining. She was, so Angelo sent her name in to the Membership Committee, the second woman candidate.

The Membership Committee, following its prescribed routine, reviewed the qualifications of all applicants for membership and then submitted the names of those who passed muster to the entire membership for a vote. At the regular meeting at the end of December, Alex Raymond, chairman of the Membership Committee, reported on the most recent of the Committee’s deliberations:

“We held a referendum in this Society about women members,” he said. “We voted and gave them the privilege of joining. I believe that we should admit people for professional ability alone. We must now vote upon the candidacy of women as they are received by my committee. We will treat them as the men.”

NCS employed the blackball to deny membership to an individual: three negative votes were enough to end a person’s quest for membership in the Society. Astonishingly, both Terry and Shermund received three negative votes. The issue of feminine membership, which everyone thought had been settled at the November meeting, was suddenly, rudely, re-opened. When the results of the balloting were announced at the Jan. 25 meeting, the room exploded.

The issue was not decided quickly. It took months. Another referendum was conducted. This time, 70 percent of the membership voted, and two-thirds of them endorsed the idea of membership for women cartoonists. At the May meeting, they decided to vote on the women candidates at the June meeting, and in June, women were at last formally admitted to membership in the National Cartoonists Society. Subsequent to approving Terry and Shermund, the Membership Committee had also approved Edwina Dumm, whose Cap Stubbs and Tippie, a folksy strip about a boy and his dog and his grandmother, had been warming hearts with gentle humor since 1918. All three women became members in June. But another crisis was coming to a head.

AL CAPP HAD ALWAYS advocated a more activist agenda for the Society, and he had begun in December 1949 to make his case in the Newsletter as well as at the meetings he attended, calling for “the welding of the Society into an honest and solid craft guild” that would pressure syndicates into making more equitable contractual agreements with cartoonists.

As a first step towards rectifying the situation, Capp urged that the Society engage an attorney to analyze the prevailing contractual relationships between cartoonists and syndicates and that a three-person task force be appointed to pursue the project aggressively. His proposal energized the discussions in the Society’s meetings and in the bar after the meetings. Although no one could quarrel with the need to do something about their indentured status, not everyone agreed with the unionist tactic that inspired Capp’s call to action. Caniff felt his friend wasn’t being very realistic.

Caniff was sympathetic to Capp’s intentions, but he saw the Society as a pressure group not as a union. Through the collective stature of the names of its most celebrated members, he believed, the Society had influence. At the same time, he wished that NCS could do more than it was able to on behalf of its members and the profession.

Caniff appointed the task force that Al Capp lobbied for, and he made Capp the chairman of the group. But when Capp insisted that the objective of their deliberations should be some sort of union-like action, he met with disagreement and soon withdrew from the chairmanship — indeed, from all participation in the activities of the Society. He remained a member, but he had lost his enthusiasm.

The Society, however, continued to be concerned about the contractual relationships between cartoonists and syndicates even without Al Capp’s driving influence. The charge given to the task force was eventually assigned to a new committee, the Ethics Committee. And the group developed a model document that defined a more desirable situation for syndicated cartoonists. Bearing the NCS imprimatur, the model contract helped shape a new, more equitable working arrangement between many of the creators of features and their distribution partners.

At the end of March 1950, Caniff relinquished the presidential gavel to his successor. And Alex Raymond — creator of Flash Gordon, Jungle Jim, Secret Agent X-9, and, after the War, Rip Kirby — was, indeed, a successor worthy of the name. Raymond, like his predecessor, would bring dedication to the job, and in representing cartoonists to the outside world, he would lend dignity to the profession.

Raymond had been a major in the Marines during the War, and he brought to his task as NCS President a military flair for order and organization. He rearranged the Society’s casual committee structure, carefully defining the task of each committee and creating three new committees: Education, Ways and Means, and Ethics. The Education Committee was to aid educators outside the profession in fostering appreciation for the medium and to create a program of instruction in art and humor and storytelling for the members of the Society. The Ways and Means Committee was charged with devising ways to assist all kinds of needy cartoonists — the sick and destitute, the young and worthy. To the Ethics Committee fell the task of developing a “fair practices” code for the conduct of affairs between cartoonists and their syndicates. In addition, the Ethics Committee was to “outline a code of ethics for cartoonists covering their responsibilities to the public and to one another in the performance of their work.” The code should include a stand “against offensive depiction of brutality, obscenity, or anything deleterious to public morals.” The Ethics Committee also investigated complaints of unethical behavior — complaints about the practices of syndicates and other buyers of cartoons, about fellow cartoonists whose conduct may have brought discredit upon the profession. Eventually, the members of the Ethics Committee were all past presidents of NCS.

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Raymond led NCS to a greater awareness of itself as an organization, and he thereby gave the Society a sharper sense of purpose. And his leadership came at just the right moment: by the time he became President, the Society had grown enough to need precisely the kind of self-consciousness he nurtured in it. NCS had outgrown its purely social function and was coming into maturity as an organization. That it was still in existence at all, though, was due in large measure to Milton Caniff.

Caniff’s involvement with the Cartoonists Society scarcely ended with the expiration of his second term as president. At Raymond’s invitation, he had a seat on the Board of Governors, and, with other past presidents, he served on the Ethics Committee for years. But in addition to such official capacities as these, he retained a nearly paternal interest in the Society for the remainder of his life — a paternal interest of the advisory but non-interferring sort. His influence was continuous, steady. He wrote thoughtful notes to officers suggesting ideas for dinner programs, special events or projects, guest speakers, members who might deserve special recognition, and the like. And after Rube Goldberg died in 1970, Caniff was elevated to a position akin to that which had been created for Rube — Honorary Chairman. This succession had the ring of poetic justice about it: the National Cartoonists Society could not have been started without Goldberg, and it might very well never have survived and matured without Caniff.

This anecdotal history of the founding of the National Cartoonists Society is taken from Meanwhile: A Biography of Milton Caniff, by yrs trly, Robert C. Harvey, published by Fantagraphics.

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One Response to “Tales of the Founding of the National Cartoonists Society Part III”

  1. bartbeaty says:

    Thanks for this. Fascinating stuff.

    I’m wondering if you can answer a question. In the New York Times on 28 March 1948 there is a one sentence notice that a “comic strip ball” will be held on 1 April 1948 at the Plaza Hotel as a fundraiser for the UN’s Crusade for Children. I had always assumed that this would’ve been a NCS event, but maybe it wasn’t. Any idea?